October 12, 2022

MDisability summer internship completes another successful year, educates three new interns

Students Dana Chung, Sydney Kessler, and Sanjana Ratakonda learn about conducting disability health research; interact with family medicine departmental faculty; and work on special projects aimed at providing resources for people with disabilities.

Three students pursuing medical careers recently completed a three-month long research internship with MDisability, an educational initiative of the Department of Family Medicine. This year’s cohort included Dana Chung, a first-year medical student at the University of Michigan Medical School; Sydney Kessler from Murray State University; and Sanjana Ratakonda, a recent Biology graduate from Boston College who has an interest in disability health.

The summer internship, now in its fourth year, is a unique academic program that trains the next generation of researchers interested in improving health outcomes and access to care for people with disabilities. The program has grown over several years, attracting 27 qualifying applicants this year. This is a jump from just three students who applied to the summer internship in 2019. In total, the MDisability summer internship program has educated 13 students.

ALSO READ: MDisability Summer Internship Alumni

Each intern was assigned a faculty mentor, with whom they collaborated on a capstone project. These projects explored the intersection of disability and clinical care, education and community-based health resource development. The interns presented their final projects at a Department of Family Medicine research meeting that included leadership, faculty, administrators and staff members from across U-M.

Sanjana Ratakonda
Sanjana Ratakonda

“The mentorship I received as an intern has helped me further discover my passion for disability health and shaped my future path in medicine,” Sanjana said. “This internship … has inspired me to pursue medical school and incorporate disability health into my future medical education and practice.”

Sanjana added that the internship not only expanded her interest in disability health, but also provided her with the tools and knowledge to become a better disability health advocate and researcher. She has stayed on with the department and is currently working as a clinical research assistant.

“The MDisability internship has been one of the most fulfilling experiences I have had, and I look forward to interacting with and working alongside the faculty, staff and interns in the future," she said.

Sanjana’s capstone project, which examined disability health curriculum within medical education, was titled, “A Deep Dive into Disability Health Education.” She collaborated with Michael McKee, M.D., MPH, director of MDisability and associate professor of Family Medicine.

Dana, a first-year medical student at U-M Medical School, gave a presentation titled, "Traumatic Spinal Cord Injury and Risk of Early and Late Onset Alzheimer's Disease and Related Dementia," a project she worked on with Associate Professor Elham Mahmoudi, Ph.D., of Family Medicine. Dana said she was looking forward to using the skills she gained during the MDisability Internship program to further research and address disability health issues in her future practice as a physician.

Dana Chung
Dana Chung

“The MDisability internship was an invaluable opportunity to dedicate full time to disability health research, work one-on-one with faculty mentors, and learn more about the research and ongoing work focused on improving disability health research, medical education, and community engagement,” Dana said. “I plan to build upon this experience and hope to learn more during my time at Michigan Medicine.”

Sydney, who lives with a spinal cord injury, was mentored by Oluwaferanmi Okanlami, M.D., MS, assistant professor of Family Medicine, as well as director of Student Accessibility and Accommodations Services and Services for Students with Disabilities. She also worked with U.S. paralympic athlete Chuck Aoki and the U-M Adaptive Sports and Fitness team on Prescription to Play. She called the experience, “surreal.”

“Overall, this summer experience strengthened my interest in disability health and disability-related issues, of which I plan to carry with me throughout my academic and professional career,” she said.

Sydney Kessler
Sydney Kessler

Sydney’s final project, titled, “Prescription to Play: Connecting Individuals with Spinal Cord Injury to Adaptive Sports and Fitness Resources,” gave an overview of how the Family Medicine-run program, funded by the Craig H. Neilsen Foundation, builds community resources to ensure individuals living with spinal cord injuries have access to local adaptive sports activities and ongoing rehabilitation support. 

READ ALSO: Assistant Professor Oluwaferanmi Okanlami awarded $200,000 Neilsen Foundation grant to launch Prescription to Play

“As I reflect on the MDisability Summer Internship Program, this experience has allowed me to gain a broader understanding of the various types of disabilities, the barriers faced by each group, and the practical ways to address these barriers and challenges,” Sydney said. “Specifically, with my work with Prescription to Play, I was able to be a part of an initiative that is actively making strides to better the lives of individuals with spinal cord injury.”

Sydney has returned to Murray State University for her senior year and will be applying to medical school in May of 2023. After that, she hopes to pursue a career as a physical medicine and rehabilitation physician.

The interns also conducted three projects as a group, with Sydney speaking at the research meeting about the group’s assisting the  Ann Arbor Center for Independent Living’s ADA Celebration Picnic; Dana summarizing data of medical students' pre- and post-evaluation attitudes about  the effectiveness of MDisability’s Disability Health Elective (an elective that enables medical students to provide a person-centered approach to caring for patients who have disabilities); and Sanjana talking about the group’s collaboration in building out resources for primary care providers and people living with disabilities, now available on the MDisability website.

Watch this past summer’s internship presentation here:

The MDisability Summer Internship Program will resume in 2023. For those interested in applying for an internship, please contact MDisability Program Coordinator Dawn Michigan at [email protected].